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Pay attention to Human Rights

Published:Thursday | January 10, 2013 | 12:00 AM

THE NEXT 50 years

JAMAICA TURNED 50 on August 6, 2012, making it an important event in the life of every Jamaican. It is also an introspective moment to reflect on the improvement of human rights in the country.

Although a superficial glance at the state of Jamaican society between 1962 and 2012 may indicate drastic changes, there are still many deficiencies that prevent Jamaica from reaching a higher level of social, economic, and humanitarian development.

In 2011, Jamaica was ranked 79 of 187 in the Human Development Index (HDI) according to the United Nations (UN). This is an improvement, since data from earlier years after Jamaica's Independence indicate that the HDI was even lower as Jamaica ranked in the middle range at 0.5. Despite this amelioration in the official ranking, the reality is often different to the statistics. With the end of British rule in 1962, Jamaica became a constitutional parliamentary democracy. Since then, it has been an official member of the international community. With this came the pressure of upholding global standards as expected by UN human-rights declarations such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In 1969, Jamaica became a member of the inter-American system and subsequently ratified the American Convention on Human Rights governing the human-rights obligations of states in the Americas. Since then, Jamaica has signed on to international instruments such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women; the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination; the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Despite making 'promises' to the international community through these treaties to uphold the human rights of its citizens, the general trend in Jamaican human rights points to a disconnection between what is stated on paper and the reality on the ground. Many non-governmental organisations have discovered that successive governments have failed to establish the connection between the realisation of human rights and development. Many people in developing countries still remain imprisoned by rights violations, economic poverty, exclusion, vulnerability, political tyranny and tribalism, as well as conflict.

worrisome factor

Largely due to a failure in realising the socio-economic rights of Jamaicans, crime has become a worrisome factor over the years. The crime problem, especially murder, has resulted in Jamaica being labelled one of the most dangerous places in the world. Legislative attempts were made by the State, as early as 1974, with passage of the Suppression of Crime and the Gun Court acts as a solution to high crime rates at the time - 29 murders during the three months prior to the passage of the acts. The murder rate has continued to increase, and in the three months following the introduction of the 'anti-crime bills' to Parliament in 2010, rose to 408 murders, signifying the ineffectiveness of implementing legislation in a vacuum to solve the problem. Over the years, there has been little change in the approach of our leaders to tackling crime as the focus has mainly been on implementation of legislative measures post-crime rather than focusing on measures that address the underlying causes of the problem.

Crime management by the police has also been a major problem. The sharp rise in police killings emphasises the division between the security forces and civilians. The number of fatal killings is shocking, with 149 in 2000, rising to 253 for 2009 and 309 in 2010. This figure of 309 accounts for more than 20 per cent of all homicides that occurred in Jamaica for 2010. Furthermore, with 41 per cent of the complaints received by Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) since 2009 being from persons detained without charge, the strained relationship between the citizenry and the police continues.

As a result of the lobbying of civil society, the creation of the Independent Commission of Investigations has been a positive step for the country that has provided citizens with an outlet to confidently register complaints regarding members of the security forces. However, despite these changes, there continue to be gross violations of citizens' rights such as arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial killings, death threats, and torture and ill-treatment during detention by the security forces, further alienating the citizenry.

Key achievement

One of the achievements since 1962 is the reduction in use of the death penalty. As a result of human-rights advocacy on the island - spearheaded by the oldest human-rights organisation in Jamaica, the Independent Jamaican Council for Human Rights (IJCHR) - court rulings, and the current laws surrounding the qualifications for death penalty, the death penalty has not been carried out in Jamaica since the late 1980s.

Inherited from British rule is our final court of appeal, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, which we have kept up to this day. The issue of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) replacing the Privy Council as Jamaica's highest court of appeal is currently the subject of much debate. One major argument against the initial establishment of the CCJ was the fact that Jamaica would invest some US$27 million for its support, yet its local court system did not work well. Human-rights organisations such as the IJCHR and JFJ have always been in support of a referendum where the dialogue has facilitated increased acceptance of and social adjustment towards minority groups traditionally perceived to be on the fringes of the society. The years after Independence saw the harassment and arrest of innocent Rastafarians due to prejudice. Over the years, this prejudice has also led to discrimination in job opportunities, the workplace, and in schools. Though some discrimination - displayed in subtle ways - still exists, there has been progress over the past 50 years for the movement.

Discrimination against other certain groups continues. Discrimination based on sexual orientation has resulted in a highly homophobic society where basic human rights are not recognised for supposed 'socially deviant behaviours'. 'Hated to Death: Homophobia, Violence and Jamaica's HIV/AIDS Epidemic' is a report by Human Rights Watch 2004, which indicates how state-sponsored homophobia and discrimination against people of different sexual orientations has, in some instances, resulted in lack of police protection to some citizens as well as refusal of treatment by health officials on the basis of sexual orientation or HIV status.

Although several organisations have been created, the situation of children is a critical problem that has not been adequately addressed in the past 50 years. Despite having signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the State has not resolved the issue of many Jamaican children repeatedly being mistreated through neglect, sexual and physical abuse, or endangerment while being in state care. This treatment is faced by children put into poorly managed state-run facilities, including juvenile correctional facilities, as manifested in the circumstances surrounding the fire at the Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre in 2009.

Despite local and international recommendations such as the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child - which issued 28 recommendations in 2003 ranging from implementing proper legislation to effectively monitoring children's schools and homes - to improve the condition of children in Jamaica, the situation is still dire.

More recently, the Human Rights Committee set up to monitor the States' implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights noted that while progress had been made in implementing the recommendations of the Keating Report on the reform of children's homes and places of safety, 40 per cent of these recommendations still needed to be implemented, and all necessary measures, including international assistance, should be explored.

The heightened exposure of human rights in Jamaica has resulted in a broader understanding of human rights that is important to minimise the violations. This interest and expression is an indication of the shift of human rights to the forefront of social and political discussions in Jamaica.

Things to work towards

Jamaica must enumerate a few core recommendations to work towards ensuring that Jamaican human-rights reach a higher standard. To begin with, the development of a national culture of respect for human rights would broaden the discussion on the issues. This should include:

Creating a national human-rights commission as well as including human rights in the educational curriculum;

Adapting the Constitution to fully embrace the protection of human rights. A comprehensive non-discrimination clause could be supported by the building of a human rights approach to security that addresses the root causes of crime and encourages a professional and accountable police force where lethal force is removed from the forefront.

More attention has to be paid to human rights among specific groups. For example, policies regarding children must be re-evaluated to ensure that they are raised in a tolerant, humanitarian society.

More emphasis is needed on social and economic programmes which include creating a system of rehabilitation to welcome victims and perpetrators into society in order to practise restorative justice rather than purely punitive justice.

Decisions must be made in the direction of abolishing the death penalty.

Education needs to be restructured to include meeting the needs of the lowest socio-economic groups in Jamaica.

Human rights is a concept that must constantly evolve; therefore, it is a challenge that the society will continue to grapple with over the next 50 years.

- This article was prepared by local lobby Jamaicans for Justice.

Jamaica continues to celebrate 50 years of Independence. We have achieved a lot. However, there is much work left to be done if we are to progress as a country. We must begin to tackle Jamaica's chronic problems in a targeted and sustained way to make this country a better place to live, work and grow families. The Next 50 Years, a special Gleaner series, will spotlight some of the challenges we must fix in the coming years. We want to hear from you. Email us at and join the debate.